Travel

The Ultimate Walt Disney World Resort Travel Guide

Magic Kingdom or bust.

AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

WRITING A GUIDE TO DISNEY WORLD is like trying to write a concise summary of planet Earth for extraterrestrials: truly staggering in scope. With four parks, 32 hotels, 36,000 hotel rooms, hundreds of restaurants, several dwarfs, and 43 square miles of happiness (that’s double the size of Manhattan, FYI), it’s hard to put into words the utter majesty of the world’s most-visited theme park. But, hey, we’ll do our best!

Disney World truly is, without sounding cliche, the Most Magical Place on Earth. Even if you think it’s just for kids (which, aside from stroller-snarled Fantasyland, it’s really not), the wonderment and awe will sweep you up and cast a spell on you-a special kind of spell that blends nostalgia, copious amounts of sugar, and booze. So very, very much booze.

Whenever that happiness clicks for you, whether it’s after a romp through Pirates of the Caribbean or mid-bite into a swirl of Dole Whip, it’s sure to take hold like a vice grip on your heart. To achieve maximum enchantment, we put together the ultimate Disney World travel guide so that you can become an expert planner and experience all the fun, excitement, food, and unforgettable magic the House of Mouse has to offer.

How to plan a day in Disney World

We’re not gonna beat around the bush: A well-planned trip to Disney World can and will change your life. A poorly-planned trip to Disney World… will never happen if you keep reading this guide. But there are some things you need to know to ensure you have the greatest time possible.

Download the game-changing (and necessary!) My Disney Experience app

As much as we’d like to be your tour guide through Disney World, we have full-time jobs. Luckily, the My Disney Experience app is extremely efficient and doesn’t need to hop on a conference call every 15 minutes.

Simply download the app before your trip (or make sure you have the latest updated version on your phone) and you’ll have a wealth of knowledge in your pocket. There, you can browse attraction wait times, make dinner reservations, place Mobile Order food orders, download photos, and navigate the parks super easily with the new Get Directions function.

Also, since the pandemic, Park Pass reservations are now mandatory for entry. In addition to having tickets, you’ll also need to make reservations for whichever park you want to visit, which you can do through the app. We weren’t kidding when we called it a game-changer.

Skirt those enormous lines with Lightning Lane passes

As one would expect, the really popular attractions (looking at you, Rise of the Resistance) often have very long wait times. Luckily, Disney World offers an awesome perk (for an extra fee) with the purchase of park tickets.

Essentially a replacement for the previous FastPass+ service, Disney Genie is a new digital tool that allows guests to customize their itineraries, make plans, and-most importantly-book Lighting Lane passes, which allow you to skip by long lines at certain times of day.

Simply fire up your My Disney Experience app (again: game-changer) to purchase Disney Genie+ ($15 per day) and make available Lightning Lane selections for in-demand attractions. You simply plug in the dates you’ll be at the park and check if passes are available for your desired rides and attractions. Make your selection and just show up to the attraction at that time. (The reservation automatically loads onto your MagicBand.) There might still be a wait, but it’ll be significantly shorter with a Lightning Lane pass.

Alternatively, you can skip Disney Genie+ and just purchase a la carte Individual Lightning Lane passes, which are priced individually and reserved for the parks’ most coveted attractions, including Rise of the Resistance and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. The prices fluctuate based on demand and time of year, but typically range from $9-15.

Both Disney Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane passes can be accessed through the standard Disney Genie planning tool, which is free to use on the My Disney Experience app.

Use a MagicBand to make your trip seamless

MagicBands are multi-functional colorful wristbands that can unlock your resort room door, hold your theme park admission, check you in at Lightning Lane entrances, and even charge food and merchandise to your Disney Resort room.

Though no longer offered complimentary for Disney Resort guests or Disney World Annual Passholders, MagicBands can be ordered online and shipped to your house prior to your trip, or picked up upon arrival in any gift shop on property.

Either way, check in with guest services (available at all resorts and at all park entrances) to link your MagicBand with your Disney account. Trust us: Knowing all of your reservations and tickets are secure and on your wrist is totally priceless.

Give your feet a break with Disney’s transportation benefits

As you know by now, everything’s been thought of at the parks-including how to get around most efficiently. If you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you’ll receive complimentary access to the Disney World monorails, buses, boats (yes, boats!), and the newest of the brunch, the Disney Skyliner gondolas, which can get you to the parks from four different resorts: Disney’s Riviera Resort, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, and Disney’s Pop Century Resort. (No matter which mode of transport you choose, just check the My Disney Experience app for directions.)

Other perks include being able to book a “Minnie Van” (a car resembling Minnie Mouse) through the Lyft app when they return this summer after a pandemic hiatus, as well as access to two modes of transport to and from the Orlando International Airport: Mears Connect and The Sunshine Flyer. Formerly known as Magical Express, these buses and shuttles are no longer complimentary for Disney Resort guests, but at $16-17 per adult, they’re far more affordable than an Uber ride.

Lee/Flickr
Lee/Flickr
Lee/Flickr

How to choose a Disney World hotel

As previously mentioned, there are tons of perks to booking a Disney World hotel, but it’s important to not lose sight of the most important benefit: They’re all uniquely themed and very cool. The hotels are divided into three categories-Deluxe Resorts, Moderate Resorts, and Value Resorts-but which you choose depends on a number of factors (the primary one being price).

Deluxe

Disney’s deluxe resorts have themed pools with slides and games, signature restaurants, and other custom on-site recreational activities like outdoor movies, bike rentals, arcades, and more. Some are even within walking distance to the parks. For example, when you stay at Disney’s Beach Club Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, or Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, you’re just steps away from EPCOT and Hollywood Studios; in fact, you can reach EPCOT in just 10 minutes.

This category includes Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (where African wildlife roam free around the property), Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, and five others.

There’s also the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, an uber-Deluxe new resort attached to Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios, which operates more like an incredibly elaborate and immersive cruise ship on land. For a cool $4,809 (and that’s on the low end) guests can book two-night “voyages” aboard the Halcyon, a hotel masquerading as a spaceship, complete with Star Wars characters, lightsaber tutorials, and wonky space food like shrimp that is somehow blue.

Moderate

In case you’re not on Princess Leia’s budget, there are four Moderate Resort hotels for those looking for something lower priced. Moderate Resorts are still fairly secluded and are a quiet escape from the parks. Resorts in this category include Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter, among others.

Value

Those looking to spend their money in the parks rather than on the hotel will want to choose a Value Resort, which are still themed but lack benefits like full-service restaurants. They’re a great fit for any budget, and make great options when you’re looking to reboot after a long day at the park. Options include Disney’s All-Star Music Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, and more.

Now armed with all that know-how, it’s time to plan the most epic Disney World trip ever. Grab your friends, your family, your My Disney Experience app (seriously, it’s a life-saver), and go experience each and every magical moment across the four parks that make up the Happiest Place on Earth.

Jeff Krause/Shutterstock
Jeff Krause/Shutterstock
Jeff Krause/Shutterstock

Magic Kingdom

BEHOLD: A PARK SO MAGICAL there’s literally nothing else you can call it. The original Disney World theme park, opened on October 1, 1971, and currently in the midst of its 50th Anniversary Celebration, Disney’s Magic Kingdom is dedicated to fairy tales and beloved Disney characters. (By the time the park opened, the world’s first Imagineer had already given us Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Cinderella, and so many more).

With Cinderella Castle at its center, newly pretty in pink for its 50th Anniversary, Magic Kingdom is divided into six themed lands, including Tomorrowland and Fantasyland, where memories are made daily.

This is certainly the most kid-friendly and nostalgic park, but be warned that this also means it’s got way too many strollers-and not nearly enough alcohol. In order to preserve the childlike innocence, Disney has long kept strict alcohol restrictions in Magic Kingdom specifically, though booze is now sold at table service restaurants only.

The best things to do in Disney’s Magic Kingdom

The rides in Magic Kingdom are not to be missed. It seems silly to call rides the main attraction for a theme park, but at Disney World’s OG park, they’re legit-and they come in all shapes and sizes, from merry, slow-moving boat rides “Under the Sea” to adrenaline-pumping coasters that scare you just enough.

Thrill-seekers flock to take a galactic trip on Space Mountain, an adorably spooky spin through The Haunted Mansion®, and a wild and bumpy ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad®. Don’t forget that when you ride Pirates of the Caribbean, the Johnny Depp figurines aren’t actually Johnny Depp-Disney just has an almost unnerving ability to replicate real humans as uncanny animatronics.

Each and every day, Magic Kingdom comes alive with the Festival of Fantasy Parade at 12 pm and 3 pm. Here, classic Disney characters plus state-of-the-art floats make their way all the way from Frontierland® down Main Street, U.S.A. For a post-sundown celebration, check back at Cinderella Castle for Disney Enchantment. The dazzling fireworks show captures your heart with Disney songs and characters from your childhood (with the vague overarching theme of “empowering you to believe in yourself,” per Disney’s glass-half-full lingo), ensuring a good happy cry all the way home.

Where to eat and drink in Magic Kingdom

Compared to the other parks, Magic Kingdom definitely has the most iconic and nostalgic vibe. But when it comes to destination dining? That’s a different story. The brutal truth is that, for the most part, the restaurants in Magic Kingdom aren’t of the same quality caliber as you’ll find everywhere else in Disney World.

That being said, aside from the so-so full-service restaurants, this is a paradise for snacks. And when it comes to snacking in Magic Kingdom, it begins and ends with Dole Whip.

What is Dole Whip, you ask? It’s a non-dairy soft serve made from frozen fruit puree, and it’s become legend around here. While available at other venues, Disneyland helped put Dole Whip on the map and has created a huge fanbase of “Dole Whip devotees.”

Pineapple is considered the original flavor, but the treat can be found in orange, vanilla, lime, lemon, and other rotating specials. It’s often turned into floats using pineapple juice-or in the case of the Snow White Cone (available at Storybook Treats), it’s served in a blue ice cream cone with a chocolate bird and sugar bow.

Dole Whip’s main hub is Aloha Isle, a casual counter in Adventureland, where you can get the pineapple classic, along with coconut, vanilla, and raspberry, and you can even double down on pineapple with a pineapple upside-down cake topped with Dole Whip.

Beyond Dole Whip, other exemplary snacks here include cheesy pastrami-filled spring rolls from the Adventureland Spring Roll Cart, Mickey-shaped cinnamon rolls from Main Street Bakery, the Grey Stuff cupcake (it really is delicious!) from Gaston’s Tavern, and Cheshire Cat Tails from Cheshire Cafe. (Don’t worry: no Cheshire Cats were harmed in the making of these chocolatey twisted pastries.)

Despite the fact that the full-service restaurants here aren’t the best, they’re still worthwhile for the themes if nothing else. Be Our Guest is a quasi-French table service experience inside the Beauty and the Beast castle, while Jungle Navigation Co. Ltd. Skipper Canteen is the restaurant version of Jungle Cruise, complete with Asian and African dishes, and cheesy dad jokes from servers.

Keep in mind that table service restaurants like these (along with Cinderella’s Royal Table, but good luck getting a reservation) are the only places in the park where alcohol is served, and it’s not available to go.

jpellgen (@1179_jp)/Flickr
jpellgen (@1179_jp)/Flickr
jpellgen (@1179_jp)/Flickr

Other things to know about Magic Kingdom

There’s a lot to see, do, and snack on in Magic Kingdom, and beyond the cafes and coasters, that includes a variety of must-do shops and events.

In addition to the Festival of Fantasy Parade, another recurring spectacle is Mickey’s Magical Friendship Faire, a happy-go-lucky dance sequence held periodically throughout the afternoon on the front steps of Cinderella Castle with Mickey, Minnie, and a variety of less-common characters like Rapunzel and Olaf the Frozen snowman.

From late summer through early winter, Magic Kingdom also goes hard for the holidays, decorating Main Street, U.S.A with Halloween swag (namely Mickey-shaped pumpkins) as early as mid-August, and rolling out Christmas decor pretty much the second it hits November.

Amidst it all are a few after-hours events that require separate tickets and include special holiday-themed parades, character experiences, snacks, and merchandise. From August through October, it’s all about the Disney After Hours Boo Bash, while November and December bring with them Disney’s Very Merriest After Hours. Both events occur only on select dates, so check the Disney World events calendar periodically for scheduling updates.

Where to stay near Magic Kingdom

Disney’s Magic Kingdom has the huge benefit of being in close proximity to Disney World’s most quintessential resorts. Surrounding the shores of Seven Seas Lagoon right in front of the park are Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, and The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort.

Each one is the size of a palace with its own distinct vibe and flavor, from the ornate, almost over-the-top luxury of the Grand Floridian (complete with a pianist in the soaring lobby and decadent surf & turf at Narcoossee’s) and the Moana-themed rooms and tiki vibes of the Polynesian (along with highly in-demand tiki bar Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto) to the Yellowstone-inspired ambiance at Wilderness Lodge, where the lobby boasts a huge fireplace and a little creek.

Greg C/Unsplash
Greg C/Unsplash
Greg C/Unsplash

EPCOT

EPCOT, WHICH STANDS FOR “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” was originally conceptualized as a kind of picture-perfect residential enclave in the 1950s. Though no one ever got to live in his unrealized utopian society-which is probably for the best, since it sounds like a whimsical Truman Show-type setting-WED Enterprises evolved the idea into a second Orlando theme park in 1982, one where spacey Future World attractions and technology converge with immersive rides and restaurants throughout World Showcase. Today, it’s out with the vaguely creepy planned housing developments and in with the edutainment and international eats.

Things to do in EPCOT

Basically the opposite of the Magic Kingdom in terms of booze, EPCOT has become a famous (and at times, infamous, depending on how much you’ve consumed) drinking and dining destination. It’s also well known for its many annual festivals, which are practically year-round at this point, including the months-long EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival and the EPCOT International Flower and Garden Festival during springtime.

Each and every year, girls’ trips, bachelorette parties, and families flock to EPCOT’s famous World Showcase, where 11 countries-including Mexico, Japan, Italy, Germany, and more-are represented with restaurants, shops, and even a few rides, like the musical Frozen Ever After boat ride in Norway and the new Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in France, wherein guests shrink down to rodent size for a mad dash through a Parisian kitchen.

Unlike the other parks, each country in World Showcase sells items that can only be found there (think school bread in Norway and Japanese beauty products in the Mitsukoshi Kiosk).

Over in Future World, things are more ride-based and educational, but in a fun way. There’s the NASA-style Mission: SPACE, a simulator attraction where guests choose between two missions: On Orange, blast off on a thrilling NASA-style mission to Mars or go Green to orbit Earth on a more gentle ride through space.

There’s also the fastest ride in all four parks, Test Track Presented by Chevrolet, which reaches 65 mph as it zooms on an indoor-outdoor course, plus icons Soarin Around the World and Spaceship Earth, the latter of which is a slow-moving ride through time inside EPCOT’s distinguished geodesic sphere narrated by Dame Judi Dench.

The best places to eat and drink in EPCOT

Far and away, EPCOT is the park best known for its food. Foodies flock to EPCOT’s World Showcase to try flavors from around the globe, and not a single one of the 11 countries disappoints. It’s a true accomplishment if you can make it to all of them, but it’s totally fine if you don’t-just do a little research beforehand to figure out your personal must-try dishes. Here’s a little something to get you started.

At Mexico’s Choza de Margarita, you’ll want to stop for both a sip and a bite: the Fiesta Frozen Margarita is a combination of three flavors-wild strawberry, mango loco, and classic lime-and pairs perfectly with the guacamole and barbacoa empanadas.

Then there’s the famous school bread at Norway’s Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe. This custard-filled cardamom bun is covered with icing and toasted coconut, with a texture akin to a Boston cream donut, but dignified with more worldly flavors. It’s a favorite of Disney insiders.

Table-service restaurants are scattered throughout World Showcase as well, so if you’re looking for something a bit fancier, try the fish & chips or shepherd’s pie at Rose and Crown Pub in the U.K. Pavilion, or head to Italy’s Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria to treat the entire crew to giant wood-fired pizzas and specialty cocktails. (Just be sure to make those reservations!).

While World Showcase gets 99% of the dining attention in EPCOT, the park is branching out with its buzziest new restaurant, Space 220, in Future World. More of a ride/restaurant hybrid, guests start their “journey” by boarding an elevator that creates the illusion of rising 220 miles up into space, before boarding a ship for a prix fixe lunch or dinner.

The restaurant offers panoramic views of space, the stars, astronauts floating by, and Earth waaay down below. Lunch is a two-course affair, while dinner adds a third course. Dishes are colorful and playful, too, like Galactic Salmon and “Spaceghetti” & Shrimp.

Orlando Sentinel/Getty Images
Orlando Sentinel/Getty Images
Orlando Sentinel/Getty Images

Other things to know about EPCOT

Besides eating, shopping and festival-going are two other popular pastimes at EPCOT. Like the aforementioned Mitsukoshi Kiosk in the Japan Pavilion, which slings items like Japanese candy, beauty products, and Nintendo merch, each World Showcase country has a unique shop or two: there’s The Tea Caddy in the U.K Pavilion, The Fjording Shop in Norway for Viking-themed Minnie Ears, and the various Dia de Los Muertos-themed art, jewelry, and accessories sold inside the giant pyramid in Mexico.

EPCOT has also become known as the festival park, and at this point, a food- and art-filled festival takes place almost every day of the year. In the winter, it’s the EPCOT International Festival of the Arts, followed by the EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival in the spring, and the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival, which has become so popular that it’s ballooned to several months long, running from July through late November when the EPCOT International Festival of the Holidays takes over.

Each one is similar in set-up, with different booths situated across the park selling specialty snacks, drinks, art, and merchandise, with subtle theme changes and enhancements to suit the season. For instance, look for chalk art installations for Festival of the Arts, elaborate topiaries and floral-themed bites for Flower & Garden, and a whole bacchanalia of internationally inspired eats, wines, beers, and cocktails for Food & Wine.

Finally, in terms of entertainment, EPCOT rolled out a bold new nighttime fireworks show called Harmonious as part of Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration. Taking place on the World Showcase Lagoon, it’s a breathtaking spectacle of vibrant pyrotechnics and water fountains, set to the tune of classic Disney songs. Featuring art and technology from more than 200 artists from across the globe, it’s at once a celebration of diversity and Disney at its most heart-tugging.

Where to stay near EPCOT

EPCOT also has the huge benefit of being within walking distance of Disney’s BoardWalk, itself a mecca of nightlife and a few fan-favorite Disney Resorts. Accessed via the International Gateway entrance from EPCOT (in World Showcase), the BoardWalk is a subtly Atlantic City-themed lineup of restaurants, bars, and even a couple of nightclubs like the Atlantic Dance Hall and Jellyrolls dueling piano bar.

It’s also home to Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, with Disney’s Beach Club Resort and Disney’s Yacht Club Resort just across Crescent Lake. The BoardWalk is also home to the Friendship Boats, which transport Disney Resort guests to and from EPCOT and Hollywood Studios. Speaking of which…

Greg C/Unsplash
Greg C/Unsplash
Greg C/Unsplash

Hollywood Studios

IF YOU’VE EVER WANTED TO step into your favorite worlds and stories, from the high-stakes adventures of Indiana Jones to the cutesy and colorful confines of a Toy Story playset, Hollywood Studios (established in 1989) is the theatrical theme park for you. Here, Disney’s most thrilling park lets you fully immerse yourself in film, television, and classic animation. In short, it’s outta this world-as you’ll literally discover in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Things to do in Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Studios is, without a doubt, home to some of Disney World’s most exciting rides. A far cry from the snail’s pace of Spaceship Earth, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster accelerates from 0 to 57 mph in 2.8 seconds-then keeps the party going by blasting Aerosmith hits like “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion” as you zoom through a neon-lit Los Angeles in a car designed to replicate a stretch limo. Leave it to Steven Tyler to bring the party to Disney.

Then there’s the Tower of Terror, which, unlike the campy horror of The Twilight Zone, is actually terrifying. Located in the park’s most iconic structure, the creepy-cool Hollywood Tower Hotel, this adrenaline-pumper is one of the scariest attractions in all of Disney World. No matter how many times you’ve experienced it, the steep, sudden elevator drops will have you somewhere between pure joy and primal fear.

As previously mentioned, classic movies and animation are on full display at Hollywood Studios, including some childhood favorites. A new addition is Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, a dazzlingly immersive train ride through vintage Mickey Mouse cartoons featuring all the classic Disney characters (your Plutos, your Daisies, your Goofy’s haplessly derailing train cars). Somewhat controversially, it replaced The Great Movie Ride inside the Chinese Theater, but despite having impossibly large shoes to fill, it’s still a feat of mesmerizing entertainment.

Less controversially, the addition of Toy Story Land (and attractions including the Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers) has gotten a ton of attention from fans, as well. Here, everything from the beloved Pixar movies come to life authentically, from the characters (the famous Green Army Men march through the park several times a day) to the food (enjoy an extra-gooey grilled cheese at Woody’s Lunch Box).

Even more transportive is the nearby Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a whole land dedicated to droids, intergalactic space flight, sassy Storm Troopers, and food and drink made with ingredients not found on Earth.

The main attractions here on the fictional planet of Batuu are Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, a simulator ride that assigns guests different interactive roles (pilot, gunner, or engineer) as they embark on a mission aboard the Millennium Falcon, and the extraordinarily epic Rise of the Resistance, a ride so long, elaborate, and detailed that you’ll feel like you’re literally in a Star Wars movie evading Kylo Ren.

Where to eat and drink in Hollywood Studios

From Woody’s Lunch Box to Star Wars cantinas, the restaurants at Hollywood Studios are just as cinematic as the rides. Case in point: you can travel back in time at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant. Modeled after a 1950s-style drive-in movie theater, this in-demand (read: hard to get into) eatery features tables shaped like old-school convertibles and all-American cuisine.

Like most Disney World restaurants, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater has several vegan and vegetarian options (including Island Cakes, which are essentially plant-based crab cakes) so the whole group can enjoy a meal together. There’s nothing like the classic combo of a burger and a milkshake, but adults can switch things up with a Godiva Chocolate Martini.

The Hollywood Brown Derby is another blast from the past-to Hollywood’s golden era, to be exact. Decorated with celebrity caricature portraits in a huge, handsomely clad dining room, the full-service restaurant is best known for its Cobb salad mixed tableside, while other vintage options include shrimp and scallops Newburg, coq au vin, and some of the most masterful Manhattans in all of the Disney World.

In Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the cuisine gets delightfully wonky-we’re talking lots of made-up ingredients and food and drink served in colors that aren’t naturally occurring (i.e. the dairy-free Blue Milk, a vaguely coconut-flavored sipper, from the fast-casual Milk Stand).

Or if you can snag a reservation, sample the fizzing, tingling, cocktails at Oga’s Cantina. The dark, cave-like bar is basically an intergalactic party emceed by DJ R-3X, a droid pilot who diehards might remember from the nearby Star Tours ride. The bill of fare here is exotic drinks that foam and bubble and come garnished with sugar cookies. Try the Fuzzy Tauntaun, a zesty medley of peach vodka, peach Schnapps, tangerine-orange juice, cane sugar, and “tingling foam” that’ll make your lips feel like you just kissed a droid.

For sustenance in Galaxy’s Edge, grab a Ronto Wrap from Ronto Roasters, a casual sandwich shop and self-described “exotic meat stall” in a bustling marketplace that looks like a souk from another planet. The menu is small, but you don’t need a lot of options when the namesake nosh, a pita wrap stuffed with roasted pork, grilled pork sausage, and peppercorn sauce, is this delicious.

Brian McGowan/Unsplash
Brian McGowan/Unsplash
Brian McGowan/Unsplash

Other things to know about Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Studios has tons of entertainment options, from Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage to the illuminated displays of the Wonderful World of Animation, where classic film characters and scenes are broadcast on the Chinese Theater at night.

But the soon-to-return Fantasmic! is a can’t-miss. The 30-minute show begins each night at 9 pm. Combining live performers, pyrotechnics, and music, it follows Mickey Mouse through a dream-turned-nightmare. But, fear not: If there’s anything a Disney story is known for, it’s a happy ending.

For merch, a lot of the shops here sell cinema-themed swag, like Mickey’s of Hollywood and Legends of Hollywood. But unsurprisingly, Galaxy’s Edge delivers the goods you won’t find anywhere else on planet Earth. Here, you can literally build and customize your own droid at Droid Depot, grab a fresh Jedi robe from Black Spire Outfitters, and stock up on trinkets and oddities from crystals to lightsabers at Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiquities.

Where to stay near Hollywood Studios

The only two parks that sit a walkable distance from one another, Hollywood Studios is relatively close to EPCOT, with Disney’s BoardWalk (and its many adjacent hotels) in between the two. A quiet-and oddly under-used-path links the parking lot at Hollywood Studios to the BoardWalk, with EPCOT’s International Gateway right around the corner. Altogether, the stroll is about a mile, or you can always hop on the Skyliner or a boat.

AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images

Animal Kingdom

LAST BUT CERTAINLY NOT LEAST is the adventurous-and impressively multicultural-Animal Kingdom, which opened on Earth Day (April 22) in 1998. The park distinguishes itself from the other three by featuring not just traditional attractions, but also about 2,000 animals across 300 species-all while heavily focusing on wildlife and legitimate environmental conservation.

That’s why if you’re looking for a plastic straw, cup lid, or balloon, well-you won’t find one here. Additionally, its nighttime show doesn’t include fireworks (no scaring the animals!). The whole atmosphere feels wild and exotic, from tree-lined walkways through gorilla-trodden jungles to macaws flying loops through the sky and floating islands in Pandora – The World of Avatar.

Things to do in Animal Kingdom

Getting up close and personal with critters is easy at Animal Kingdom. If you want a closer look at those living on Harambe Wildlife Reserve (110 acres of open plains, shady forests, and rocky wetlands, all of which combine to be larger than Magic Kingdom), just embark on Kilimanjaro Safaris. From hippos to cheetahs, you never know what you’re going to see on this bumpy jeep ride-and often, you’ll even have to stop for passing rhinos or giraffes.

If you’re prone to carsickness, you can still see animals on two walking trail attractions: the Africa-themed Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek for tigers, bats, and colorful birds.

For a more intimate look at Disney’s conservation efforts, take a peaceful train ride out to Conservation Station, where on-staff veterinarians provide care for animals and where guests can literally watch procedures in progress. There’s also an on-site petting zoo, Affection Section, in case watching surgery is a little too much for you.

Despite all the real-life animals, there’s still plenty of magic. Thrill rides, including Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain and Avatar Flight of Passage, nod to fictionalized beasts like the Yeti and Avatar‘s famed flying banshees, while A Celebration of Festival of the Lion King is a riotous circus-like show with Broadway-worthy theatrics.

Disney doesn’t shy away from the scare factor, either: It’s Tough to be a Bug!, a 4-D film attraction inspired by A Bug’s Life, seems innocent and sweet, but is actually quite frightening when giant Black Widow spiders start dangling from the ceiling. Magical? Yes. Low-key scarier than Tower of Terror? Maybe!

And at night, when all the birds, giraffes, lions, and tigers tuck in for bed, the Tree of Life awakens. The centerpiece of the park, a larger-than-life baobab tree with intricate animal carvings in the faux wood, comes alive after sunset with a dazzling light show complete with music and the ability to make you weep. A safer alternative to fireworks (explosive pyrotechnics are not ideal for the animals), the show is a perfect reminder to preserve the planet, not just for us, but for our furry friends.

Where to eat and drink in Animal Kingdom

While not quite as global as EPCOT, Animal Kingdom is representative of many cultures and countries including destinations throughout Africa and Asia. For this reason, you can try snacks here that aren’t available anywhere else at Disney World.

At Pongu Pongu (located in Pandora – The World of AVATAR), try Pongu Lumpia, aka pineapple cream cheese spring rolls. Lumpia is commonly found in Indonesia and the Philippines and can be filled with anything from meat to veggies, so while this sweet version might not be the most authentic, it’s still not to be missed.

Over in Africa, highlights include smoky ribs bowls, cilantro rice, and Simba cupcakes-complete with orange-yellow icing “mane”-at Harambe Market. And speaking of Simba, this is the one park where Mickey-shaped pretzels are joined by Simba-shaped pretzels, available at various kiosks throughout the park on a rotating basis.

Elsewhere in Pandora, Satu’li Canteen is the new gold standard for quick-service dining in Disney World. First of all, this huge restaurant has Mobile Order streamlined, meaning you need to place an order on your My Disney Experience app ahead of time, rather than just walk-up at leisure. You’ll peruse the menu, select a pickup window, place your order, and visit the restaurant when you’re notified that your food is ready.

The thing here is customizable bowls, which are delicious and shockingly wholesome, especially if you opt for hearty salad mix as your base, then top it with wood-grilled chicken thigh. Each bowl comes topped with crunchy-fresh veggie slaw, your choice of dressing, and popping boba balls, which oddly work. The Na’vi must have a thing for boba.

When it comes to full-service dining, two of the best restaurants in Disney World are here: Tiffins and its more casual offshoot, Nomad Lounge. Considering it has a similar menu to Tiffins, a huge riverside terrace, and far shorter wait times, Nomad Lounge is a favorite for many a Disney diehard.

Nomad Lounge’s ambience has “chic safari glamping trip” written all over it, while the food and drinks offer unique ingredients and flavors, like thick-cut yucca fries and the popular Tiffins Bread Service, a trio of wafer-thin papadams, herb-laced pita, and pomegranate focaccia with red pepper hummus, coriander yogurt, and ginger-pear chutney. To drink, cocktails skew fruity and vibrant, like the Leaping Lizard with pineapple rum, Cachaça, and orange, passion fruit, and mango juices.

Jeremy Thompson/Flickr
Jeremy Thompson/Flickr
Jeremy Thompson/Flickr

Other things to know about Animal Kingdom

Right as you enter the park, just past a smattering of smaller animal exhibits and through a convincing jungle replication, you’ll be greeted with a sweeping view of the Tree of Life. There, you’ll also find two of the park’s essential shops, Discovery Trading Company and Island Mercantile. Both are huge and sell similar merchandise, but you’ll be able to find things unique to Animal Kingdom here, like The Lion King souvenirs and apparel in leopard and zebra print.

In addition to the Tree of Life’s nighttime illumination, a couple of other regularly scheduled events take place on the water. As a pandemic pivot, Animal Kingdom started running recurring “flotillas,” which are sort of like mini parades on the Discovery River that loop through the entirety of the park. The musical, socially distanced boat rides include a few waving and dancing characters, including Mickey and Minnie, Pocahontas, Chip ‘n’ Dale, and Timon and Rafiki from The Lion King.

For the 50th Anniversary Celebration, Animal Kingdom’s new showcase was the start of Disney’s KiteTails, a delightful aquatic kite show held throughout the afternoon at the Discovery River Amphitheater. Set to classic Disney tunes, the show features jet skis zooming around with character kites in tow. Depending on which show you catch, you’ll spot various characters from Disney’s more animalistic films, including The Jungle Book, Finding Nemo, and-you guessed it-The Lion King.

Where to stay near Animal Kingdom

Just west of the park, kinda off on its own in the woods, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge is the main accommodation out this way. Singular among all Disney Resorts, this one is a masterpiece of design, created to look like a legit-albeit bougie-African safari lodge, complete with giraffes, zebras, and impalas roaming around right outside your window.

For a closer look, guests can even book a nighttime safari expedition with the resort to see the animals at their most active. The lodge is also home to some of the most distinct dining on property, from the habit-forming Zebra Domes (aka balls of chocolate mousse topped with white chocolate infused with Amarula Cream Liquor and striated with chocolate stripes) at The Mara to the bountiful buffet splendors of Boma – Flavors of Africa, where you can eat as much peanut rice and lamb bobotie as your stomach can handle.

Amy Humphries/Unsplash
Amy Humphries/Unsplash
Amy Humphries/Unsplash

Things to do at Disney World besides the parks

Now, aside from everything you already know-which, if you’ve read this far, is a lot-Disney World has surprise and delight moments to keep you smiling throughout your entire trip. You simply need to know where to look.

Keep an eye out for Hidden Mickeys

Undoubtedly, one of the most fun things to do while walking from one destination to another is to look for “Hidden Mickeys.” Throughout the four parks and resorts, mouse ears are hiding in plain sight. They’re hidden in designs, architecture, tire tread-you name it. It’s a rite of passage to find as many as you can, so keep your eyes peeled for Mickey-shaped windows, shrubbery, and more.

Shop around at Disney Springs

Disney Springs is the ultimate shopping, dining, and entertainment destination. With an endless variety of brands, including Mac, Uniqlo, and DisneyStyle-plus the world’s best collection of Disney and co-branded merchandise anywhere-Disney Springs will satisfy all of your shopping needs.

There are also restaurants by celebrity chefs, including Frontera Cocina from Rick Bayless, Guy Fieri’s emphatic Chicken Guy!, Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, and Wine Bar George from certified master sommelier George Miliotes. But if you’re still on the hunt for more after a full day of shopping and dining, there’s AMC 24 Disney Springs, Splitsville bowling alley, and Drawn to Life, a Disney animation-themed Cirque du Soleil show.

Rejuvenate at a Disney World salon and spa

Long days at the parks mean lots of walking, sun, and standing, but Disney World has plenty of opportunities for you to feel refreshed. With a number of gyms, spas, and salons, you never have to feel too run-down for long. If you’re feeling so inclined, book yourself an appointment-and feel like a pampered princess-at Senses – A Disney Spa and Salon at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. An aromatherapy massage might be just what you need before hitting the next park.

Cool down at a Disney water park

Whether you crave action or relaxation, there’s no better place than Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park. This tropical paradise is full of twisting slides, sandy beaches, and the largest inland wave pool around. Here, experience the thrills on Miss Adventure Falls, or the twisting, turning Crush ‘n’ Gusher water coaster.

While currently closed until summer 2022, you can also opt for Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park, aka the polar opposite of other water parks. From bunny slopes to black diamonds, this place is packed with plenty of ways to chill. Zip down the 120-foot-tall Summit Plummet water slide, tackle a fast-paced tube run, or enjoy a leisurely float along a creek.

Make some memories at Disney’s “Instagram Walls”

Scattered throughout the parks are perfectly placed walls that just so happen to make excellent photo backdrops. The growing trend has caught on in the past few years, and now you’ll always find people snapping pics (so feel free to do it shamelessly).

Some of the most beloved are the #purplewall, near the entrance of Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom, the #mosswall, located next to Satu’li Canteen in Pandora – The World of AVATAR in Animal Kingdom, and the #popsiclewall-which is gaining fandom over in Hollywood Studios’ Toy Story Land.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.

Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He’s the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.

Rebecca Strassberg is a digital journalist, graduate of SUNY Purchase, and Brooklyn native. The amount of Law & Order: SVU she watches should be considered especially heinous.

Illustrated by Gica Tam.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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